“Hey Josh, it’s Crystal at the Herald-Mail … I was wondering, maybe, if you could give me a call today. I know you’re going to be part of the Boondocks Festival, and I can’t get any of the big celebrities … .”
And that’s where the clip cuts off — but only before the words “big celebrities” repeat themselves incessantly, eventually fading into nothingness. It introduces “Haggard and Hank,” the final song on Josh Morningstar’s “Whole Lotta Crazy.” The soundbite’s placement could be a lot of things, but it’s easiest to label the message as a shot: “You, Mr. Morningstar, are not a celebrity … and we don’t really think you’ll ever be a celebrity … and if any of the actual celebrities wanted to talk to us, we would not be talking to you … but … .”
Sure, the Crystal in question most likely never meant much harm. But when you’re a musician, a chip on a shoulder is as common as a broken guitar string on a basement floor. It’s clear the voicemail left a mark on the Hagerstown country music artist, and when you have as many marks as Morningstar has accrued through the years — drug addiction, heartbreak, jail stints — it’s hard to blame him for calling her out. After all, his defiant self-awareness is perhaps his best tool.
And, much to the delight of many a Morningstar fan, it’s all over “Whole Lotta Crazy.” Take “Damn These Birds,” which features a laundry list of drugs as lyrics over a lazy country-western groove tailor-made for the shadiest of honky-tonks. Swinging with a tasteful electric guitar and Morningstar’s understated, thin vocals, it turns out to be one of the funniest moments of the record, a tale of hazy vignettes that illustrate the singer’s darker days (or should that be daze?). It’s both endearingly light-hearted and deliciously self-revealing.
Kind of like the title track, which is the best song here. Taking half a page from the bro-country that has infiltrated pop radio in recent years, the song is driven forward by a simple backbeat that almost never stops, even when everything else around it does. In its own way, it’s anthemic, made for county fairgrounds filled with patrons who fancy a concert only once a year and are ready to stomp and clap upon request. Above all, it’s the most accessible the songwriter gets, his taste for sugar overriding any other potential palate passion.
Getting quiet serves him well, too. “Melody” is pretty and delicate and when Morningstar hits the line, “You took everything that’s ever meant everything to me” while the track winds down, it’s hard not to feel him pour each inch of his soul into what he’s doing. “Hangovers and Heartbreaks” is similar in texture but more yesteryear-Nashville than modern-day-Austin, its sadness piercing through with a line like, “I drank my breakfast this morning just like my dinner last night.” For a recovering addict, he sure knows how to make a lack of sobriety feel intensely sobering.
Perhaps the most unexpected takeaway here is the singer’s similarity to another hard-living producer/songwriter Butch Walker. “Miss Bobbie Jo” is jangly to the point that you might even be able to call it pop-reggae. The only thing keeping that from happening is the pedal steel that peeks its head in and out of the proceedings — a trick Walker perfected years ago when he ditched the glam and took up the denim. “Cryin Eyes Of Blue” echoes the same approach, a (somewhat) steady kick drum anchoring the feel as an acoustic guitar helps listeners get out of their respective seats.
As far as traditional country music goes, however, “Drivin Nails In My Coffin” ramps up the tempo and dusts the cowboy boots off in the same way traditionalists such as … well … Haggard and Hank would be known to do from time to time. “I’m just drivin nails in my coffin/Every time I drink a bottle of booze/I’m just drivin nails in my coffin/I’m drivin them nails over you,” the chorus explains before our main character shouts solos to his cohorts. It’s ruckus, it’s fun, it’s authentic and it’s a welcome shout to the roots that helped spawn a singer/songwriter such as this.
And thank God they did. Because despite his best efforts, Josh Morningstar has become one of the premiere artists in the Hagerstown/Frederick area, if only for his ability to palpably portray his past in ways that must be equally therapeutic and tempting. So, here’s hoping he can keep his “Whole Lotta Crazy” in check as he moves forward. Because if he does, he might one day be the big celebrity refusing to return the Herald-Mail’s request for an interview.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***